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Interview: Greg Lukianoff of FIRE on Unlearning Liberty

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJMedia.com, and we're talking with Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education.  He's also the author of Unlearning Liberty:  Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.  It's published by Encounter Books and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore.

And Greg, thank you for stopping by today.

MR. LUKIANOFF:  Thanks so much for having me.

MR. DRISCOLL: Greg, in November of 2004, when Tom Wolfe was on the road promoting I am Charlotte Simmons, and was speaking in San Francisco of all places, I watched a middle-aged man during Wolfe’s Q&A session with the audience stand up and say, “Mr. Wolfe, lie to me if you have to. But tell me I’m not sending my daughter off to Sodom and Gomorrah University next year.” But I imagine that inside the walls of the original Sodom and Gomorrah, there was likely just a bit more freedom of speech than the modern university. How did today’s speech codes develop on campus and where do they stand these days with most universities?

MR. LUKIANOFF:  Well, FIRE has made some progress against speech codes over the years.  But here's what that progress means.  When we first started doing our huge survey of speech codes across the country, we found that seventy-five percent of top universities maintain what we call red light speech codes.  That means codes that they either violate or would violate First Amendment standards.  And after years of fighting this, five years later, we're down to sixty-three percent of colleges maintain red light speech codes.

And this is interesting, because there's a popular myth that politically correct speech codes came into existence in the 1980s, with the height of political correctness.  And since they were defeated consistently in court, and since they were laughed at in the court of public opinion, that these codes all sort of just faded away.  And one of the things I really try to address in the book is that's entirely wrong.  Amazingly, even though they were defeated -- and they are always defeated when they're challenged in court -- and even though the public right, left, and center -- at least off campus -- laughed at these codes at the time and said that they were outrageous, speech codes just kept on increasing for years afterwards.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Do you run into people who say to you, “Oh, all that political correctness, all those speech codes, that’s not really happening in real life!”

MR. LUKIANOFF:  We run into it all the time -- and I've complained about this in the book and in Reason Magazine -- about how I think that part of the problem is that since we live in a culture where there's such a us and them mentality -- us versus them mentality, that, somehow, a good portion of the public kind of see defending higher education as part of being us, even though the stuff that higher education pulls is stuff that, when I actually get to explain it in a speech, they go, well, that's outrageous; well, that's not right.  But nonetheless, I think that the issue of free speech on campus oftentimes gets treated as a sort of "conservative niche" issue, as primarily a tactic just for dismissing its importance.

MR. DRISCOLL:  How did FIRE come to be created as an effort to push back against all of this?

MR. LUKIANOFF:  Well, it was founded by Alan Charles Kors, who's a professor of the Enlightenment at Penn, and Harvey Silverglate, who's a civil liberties attorney out of Boston.  And they got together in 1998 and wrote a book called The Shadow University, which was the sort of precursor to Unlearning Liberty.  And after writing this book, which was an expose of violations of free speech and due process -- really outrageous violations -- they got so many requests for help, after writing the book, that they realized they had to set up a nonprofit to defend free speech and due process on campus.